thou vnnecessary letter: “The Booke of Sir Thomas Moore”

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Letter d. This letter is always in the round, looped form; and the loop is almost invariably clearly written—
 only rarely, when in reduced size, is it blind.—E. Maunde Thompson1

At the height of Sir Thomas More’s political success in the play that bears his name, Sir Thomas Palmer presents King Henry VIII’s Lord High Chancellor with “these Articles enclosde, first to be viewde, | and then to be subscribed to.”2 “The nature of the articles is never specified,” note Vittorio Gabrieli and Giorgio Melchiori, “But M[unday] identifies them with the Oath of Supremacy and Act of Succession submitted to More on 13 April 1534 at Lambeth Palace.”3 In response to the king’s demand, More says: “Subscribe these Articles? stay, let vs pause, | our conscience first shall parley with our lawes” (ll. 1238–39). While the Bishop of Rochester flatly refuses to sign and is arrested for “this capitall contempt” (l. 1249), More decides with more temperance to resign his office and, by a “prepared order from the King” (l. 1258), happily departs to house arrest in Chelsea. The signature that Henry wants More to affix to the unnamed articles would obviously function as a sign of his submission to the king’s authority. More than this, however, the signature and the name would stand in for, take the place of, More’s person, a doubling or duplication which could be carried to the king in More’s absence, and its subscripted position on the document would affirm a hierarchy of power to which More would have fully capitulated. Yet More’s refusal to sign the articles, I would argue, still functions as a signature because the absence of his name becomes a subscription to his conscience, which would seem to follow a power higher than Henry’s earthly one.

In “Signature Event Context,” Derrida examines the operation of the signature’s power, which it exercises through the singular context in which it is written, writing:

          By definition, a written signature implies the actual or empirical nonpresence of the signer. But, it will be said, it also marks and
          retains his having-been present in a past now, which will remain a future now, and therefore in a now in general [...].
          For the attachment to the source to occur, the absolute singularity of an event of the signature and of a form of the
          signature must be retained: the pure reproducibility of a pure event.4
Despite the spatiotemporal restrictions that bind the signature to its context, the written name must also move beyond the event of its writing to assert its power within future contexts: “one can always lift a written syntagma from the interlocking chain in which it is caught or given without making it lose every possibility of functioning, if not every possibility of ‘communicating,’ precisely. Eventually, one may recognize other such possibilities in it by inscribing or grafting it into other chains. No context can enclose it.”5 When Sir Thomas Palmer—himself acting as the king’s hand, even in name—presents Henry’s articles, More finds himself within a “set of presences” meant to organize such an inscription. But, as More withholds his hand, the absence of his signature becomes for Henry a mobile, disembodied sign of defiance and, eventually, of high treason. More’s signature continues to organize his relationship with the king, who remains offstage throughout the play’s action, for when Shrewsbury and Surrey visit him at Chelsea to ask once again for his signature lest he be arrested and committed to the Tower, More says that he will “now satisfye the Kings good pleasure,” to which Shrewsbury says, “Come then, subscribe my Lord” (ll. 1575, 1577). This is but one of his many jests, however, and More adheres again to his conscience while also submitting himself to the king: “Oh pardon me, | I will subscribe to goe vnto the Tower, | with all submissiue willingnes” (ll. 1579–81).


As Derrida explains and as More demonstrates, the signature enacts a procedure whereby a textual presence substitutes for a physical or embodied absence, even when the name is just an absent presence, like More’s. Another signature in “The Booke of Sir Thomas Moore,” that of the Master of the Revels Edmund Tyllney, participates in this complex dynamic too, but while working in the British Library’s Manuscripts Reading Room I discovered that it displays an additional level of presence and absence. To be precise, I found a new reading in the manuscript’s very well-thumbed leaves, one which consists of a solitary letter that to my knowledge has been absent from all modern transcriptions of the manuscript. This new letter would seem to have first appeared sometime during the 1590s when Tyllney attempted to curb certain dramatic matter and language in the play. His most sustained intrusion consists of a censorship note written in the upper left corner of fol. 3a, the leaf on which the action of the play begins. The material Tyllney finds objectionable centers on the “ill Maie daie” riots of 1517,Raphael Holinshed, [et al.,] THE Third volume of Chronicles (London, 1587), inner margin 840. a series of events that shared with the 1590s a socially volatile unrest about diplomatically protected resident aliens, who were believed to be infringing on the livelihoods of London merchants.6 His censorship is ultimately about not reactivating the events of 1517 within the present historical conditions of the 1590s. To give weight to the note and to authorize his injunctions, Tyllney has affixed his signature. The note reads:

          <Le>aue o<ut>
          ye <i>nsur<rection> [  ]
          [      ] w<h>oly wt
          y<e> Cause ther off &
          <b>egin wt Sr Tho:
          Moore att ye mayors sessions
          wt A reportt afterwarde
          off his good servic‘
          don being‘ Shriue off Londō
          vppō a mutiny Agaynst ye
          Lūbarde only by A shortt
          reportt & nott otherwise
          att your own perrilles7
Modernized, the note reads: “Leave out [. . .] the insurrection wholly with the cause thereof and begin with Sir Thomas More at the Mayor’s sessions with a report afterwards of his good service done being Sheriff of London upon a mutiny against the Lombards only by a short report and not otherwise at your own perils.”
This signature, first of all, would have been instantly recognizable to London’s playing companies in the period, for during his thirty-one-year tenure as Master of the Revels Tyllney was responsible for censoring, allowing, and licensing plays for performance. “Ed Tyllney” would have theoretically accompanied and validated each playing license that sanctioned every “Book” or play owned by the London playing companies.

The letter that has not hitherto been observed in the manuscript is the “d” in Tyllney’s signature. Those scholars who have edited the play and written about the manuscript have consistently read the name “E Tyllney” beneath the censorship note, a tradition that extends from the first printed edition of the play by Alexander Dyce in 1844, through W.W. Greg’s diplomatic edition of 1911, to Gabrieli and Melchiori’s critical edition of the play in 1990, and beyond.8 Yet the “d” is easy to miss. As Figure 1 shows, Tyllney tends to embed the “d” inside the initial “E,” while typically extending the lower bar of the “E” into an upward stroke to form the shaft of the “T” in his last name. After examining nineteen of Tyllney’s signatures in documents relating to the Office of the Revels during the Elizabethan period, I have found that seventeen of them read “Ed Tyllney.” Only two signatures read “E Tyllney,” both of which appear on the same document.9 The signature that Tyllney has written on fol. 3a of “The Booke of Sir Thomas Moore,” seen in Figure 2, noticeably exhibits the separate penstroke that forms the “d” within the capital “E,” as in Figure 1, though it lacks the colon that he often uses to indicate abbreviation.

The significance of the letter, aside from eluding the notice of paleographers of Greg’s and A.W. Pollard’s caliber, rests in the authority that it intends to inscribe, which is the voice and power of the Master of the Revels. On one hand, the textual status of “d” has been and continues to be a plainly visible and independent orthographical mark, able to be separated from its context and from the remainder of the signature without jeopardizing the editorial power that both context and signature invoke. But, on the other hand, its textual status has been and continues to be concealed, an absence that is coextensive with the historical context and censorial event of the note and its writing, both of which the signature is designed to enforce in perpetuity. As one element of the signature that stands for the Master of the Revels’ textual presence, “d”—more visibly than its fellow letters—declares the iterability of the entire signature: “the absolute singularity of an event of the signature and of a form of the signature must be retained: the pure reproducibility of a pure event.”10 Like all signatures, Tyllney’s aspires to be more than the sum of its orthographical parts, but the “d” is, impossibly, neither expendable because the conventionality of the abbreviated spelling requires it—that is, he writes “Ed Tyllney” in virtually all surviving examples of his signature—nor is it indispensable because the legibility of the name functions perfectly well without it.

Curiously, the “d” in Tyllney’s signature is not the first text in the manuscript to reappear after a long hiatus. In 1972, for example, Peter W.M. Blayney revealed that although fol. 9b had “been described as blank by every commentator since Dyce in 1844, [....] In the upper left-hand corner appears, quite plainly, the speech-prefix ‘all.’ in Hand D. Below this, and slightly to its left, another ‘a’ has been begun, but smudged out before it was finished.”11 An even more spectacular textual revelation had occurred when major conservation work was performed on the manuscript on 14 February 1910 by Sir George Warner, then Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum. This work consisted of lifting two large slips of paper that had been glued over cancelled writing on fols. 11b and 14a, which not only generated two new folio leaves (fols. 11* and 13*)—certainly a rare occurrence—but also exposed “the underlying text,” as Greg observes, which could then “be read for the first time since the sixteenth century.”12 Yet, notwithstanding all of the new text that has been brought to light in this dramatic document, textual material continues to be lost from Harley MS. 7368. That is to say, the leaves of the manuscript are in a dreadful state of decay and, as the bracketed portions in my transcription of Tyllney’s note should suggest, many letters throughout the text have either perished altogether or are in the process of disappearing. Moreover, questionable conservation work carried out on the manuscript during the nineteenth century involved pasting transparent tracing paper over crumbling leaves. The tracing paper has certainly held those leaves together, but ironically it has now become opaque in many places and, in some instances, has even pulled away from the leaves beneath, creating a literal depth to the text that cannot now be accessed without threatening its structural stability. While so many other letters in the manuscript face oblivion, my discovery of a new one in Tyllney’s signature will mitigate their loss very little.

That Greg, Pollard, and others have recognized the name “E[] Tyllney” precisely at the moment that they overlook what is materially there in the manuscript suggests that the signature falls short of its author’s intention and that it graphically exceeds its audience’s apprehension. At the same time, the signature’s modern critical audience has repeatedly constructed the textual presence of its author by abridging or absenting one of its conventional parts, as much of a flourish as the “d” might be. Even if we might now say that scholars have failed to apprehend the letter’s material history, we should not lose sight of the fact that the letter’s absence has always helped to define the limits of the manuscript’s critical history. What this means is not that the newly discovered letter provides us with a fuller, recovered, or more original text, nor does it simply reaffirm the critical orthodoxy that the text is immanently unstable—though it certainly does that. If we still take seriously the lessons of poststructuralism, it means that the text constantly, and even now, surpasses our abilities to account for it.

The gap that we witness between the material and critical histories of “d” in Tyllney’s signature might measure only an eyeskip across, but it also measures the unattainable distance between the very materiality of language and the excesses of meaning that reside in both its presence and its absence, which neither writer nor reader can control. Ultimately, “Ed Tyllney” works to muster a force of compliance that the Master of the Revels cannot himself master, a point made all the more salient by the fact that the revisions he calls for in the censorship note the playwrights seem never to have undertaken.13 But whether the playwrights have neglected the spirit of Tyllney’s authority or the critics overlooked the letter of it, the material presence of “d” records a signature and an event and a context from the 1590s that is forever absent. In the final analysis, this absence is foundational to our critical work, even while the forces of history continue their work of decomposing the text in “The Booke of Sir Thomas Moore.”


  • 1. E. Maunde Thompson, “The Handwriting of the Three Pages Attributed to Shakespeare Compared With His Signatures,” in Shakespeare’s Hand in the Play of Sir Thomas More: Papers by Alfred W. Pollard, W.W. Greg, E. Maunde Thompson, J. Dover Wilson, & R.W. Chambers, ed. A.W. Pollard (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1923), 57–112, at 88. My title is from William Shakespeare, THE TRAGEDIE OF KING LEAR, in MR. WILLIAM SHAKESPEARES COMEDIES, HISTORIES, & TRAGEDIES (London: by Isaac Iaggard and Ed. Blount, 1623), TLN 1137.
  • 2. References are to The Book of Sir Thomas More, 2d ed., ed. W.W. Greg, supp. Harold Jenkins (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961), ll. 1235–36. Subsequent citations appear in the text.
  • 3. Anthony Munday and Others, Sir Thomas More, ed. Vittorio Gabrieli and Giorgio Melchiori (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990), 165 n. 70.
  • 4. Jacques Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 328.
  • 5. Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, 317, his emphasis. Derrida speaks here about the “iterability” of the written sign, which must be legible to and replicable by others in order to signify, but which must also therefore break with and exceed the specific context of writing that it claims to represent, that “set of presences which organize[s] the moment of its inscription.” Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, 317.
  • 6. See Arthur F. Kinney, “Text, Context, and Authorship of The Booke of Sir Thomas Moore,” in Pilgrimage for Love, ed. Sigrid King (Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 1999), 133–60; Scott McMillin, The Elizabethan Theatre and The Book of Sir Thomas More (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987), esp. 67–73; and Alfred W. Pollard, “Introduction,” in Shakespeare’s Hand in the Play of Sir Thomas More, 1–40, esp. 22–30.
  • 7. Ed Tyllney“The Booke of Sir Thomas Moore,” British Library, Harley MS. 7368. All transcriptions are mine, with reference to W.W. Greg, English Literary Autographs, 1550–1650, 4 pts. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1932), Part 1, Plate XXXa. Italic characters in pointed brackets are supplied by Alexander Dyce via Greg and have disappeared entirely, whereas roman characters in pointed brackets are still partly visible.
  • 8.  Sir Thomas More, A Play; Now First Printed, ed. Alexander Dyce (London: for the Shakespeare Society, 1844), 1 n. 1; The Book of Sir Thomas More, ed. W.W. Greg (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1911), 1n; and Sir Thomas More, ed. Gabrieli and Melchiori, 17. See also the transcription “E Tyllney” in E.K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, 4 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923), 4.32; in Richard Dutton, Mastering the Revels: The Regulation and Censorship of English Renaissance Drama (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991), 82; in W.W. Greg, Dramatic Documents from the Elizabethan Playhouse: Stage Plots, Actors’ Parts, Prompt Books, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), 1.244; in Pollard, “Introduction,” 4; and so on.
  • 9. See Albert Feuillerat, ed., Documents Relating to the Office of the Revels in the Time of Queen Elizabeth (Louvain: A. Uystpruyst, 1908), 372, ll. 35 and 39, the second of which is arguably not in Tyllney’s hand. Feuillerat identifies the second signature as being in the same hand that composed the document. The manuscript is the account book for the Office of the Revels “Betwene the xxvth of ffebruary. 1584. [...] And the last of October. 1585,” National Archives, AO3/907 (Audit Office, Bd. 1213, Revels, no. 10, p. 263).
  • 10. Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, 328.
  • 11. Peter W.M. Blayney, “The Booke of Sir Thomas Moore Re-Examined,” Studies in Philology 69 (1972): 167–91, esp. 168. G. Blakemore Evans says that the unfinished mark on fol. 9b “appears to be a capital ‘C,’ both in Hand D,” in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans, et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), 1684. As most know, the heavyweight contender for Hand D is Shakespeare, but see Kinney, “Text, Context, and Authorship of The Booke of Sir Thomas Moore” for a case that vigorously contests the attribution.
  • 12. Greg, The Book of Sir Thomas More, vi.
  • 13. Gabrieli and Melchiori, eds., Sir Thomas More, 19: “the revisions and additions in different hands seem not to take into account Tilney’s suggestions and injunctions, especially his recommendation to speak only of ‘Lombards’.”